Health care's problem solver

Mary Jane Dykeman ('89) helps health care organizations navigate the intricacies of the law and its impact on patients and their families

Mary Jane Dykeman

By Aloma Jardine

Mary Jane Dykeman knew from an early age that she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and practise law.

But it wasn't until she met the late Dr. Ross Stanway, a professor of philosophy at Mount Allison, that her path became clear.

"He started pointing me toward bioethics and that is the moment I knew," she says. "I was really fortunate early on and I knew I wanted to do health law, which was in its infancy then."

Dykeman has been practising health law for 20 years and is now a partner at DDO Health Law, a boutique health law firm based in Toronto, ON. She has also acted as in-house counsel to hospital, long-term care, and mental health organizations.

"My job is to help the CEO and senior leadership, as well as the health care team handle a given situation gracefully. I'm not a litigator, I am a problem solver," she says.

In recent years, a number of legislative changes have had huge implications for the health care system, including assisted dying laws, privacy legislation, and the upcoming legalization of cannabis, not to mention increasing interest in advance care planning and health care consent.

For each new piece of legislation, government, policy-makers, hospitals, and other health care services must examine the law and then work out what it means for them and how it will apply in practice. Dykeman helps them navigate this process and develop sound policies to guide decision-making.

"It is a puzzle," she says. "You have to work your way through and also look ahead to what the best outcome is, how this law will work at the front line and impact patients and families."

Dykeman also gets called in when there are disagreements between a patient or a patient's family and a health care provider over the application of the law or in risk management situations.

"I really do enjoy that aspect," she says. "There is a practical side to it, but there is also compassion because you have to think, 'What impact does this have on the people who are going to be most affected? What is the graceful path through?'"

In addition to her work at the firm, Dykeman teaches mental health law in Osgoode Professional Development's Health Law LLM program at York University and volunteers as vice-chair of the Alzheimer Society of Toronto and deputy chair of Canadian Blood Services' research ethics board.

She has also been involved with a number of special projects recently.

Working with The Change Foundation, she helped develop resources on health care consent and privacy, and barriers faced by family caregivers. 

Taking that one step further, she and a friend who is an emergency doctor pooled their knowledge and experience to develop online resources for caregivers, particularly adult children of aging parents.

With the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, she has also written two Law Commission of Ontario papers on health care consent and advance care planning. [Health Care Consent and Advance Care Planning in Ontario and Health Care Consent, Advance Care Planning, and Goals of Care Practice Tools: The Challenge to Get it Right]

"There are a lot of barriers to family members getting the right information in front of a health care team," she says. "We tried to make it very practical. So, for example, someone was speaking to me and said, 'I think it is time for my aging family member to stop driving. How do I have that conversation with them? How can a health care provider help?' The bottom line is, these situations are hard enough; having resources to demystify the process is important."

A conversation with a friend sparked another project — a course called Attorney Essentials delivered on the U.S.-based platform Ultimate Attorney.

The aim is to support lawyers worldwide to live and practise better, which will hopefully also increase retention as many lawyers end up burning out and leaving the profession.

One of Dykeman's most memorable Mount A moments came at her Convocation. The Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was one of the honorary degree recipients and after the dinner that evening Dykeman and her friend Deb Johnston ('90) asked Trudeau if he'd like to go to the campus pub. 

"We were in Jennings Hall and he was keen. We snuck him out the side door and signed him into the pub as our guest. The coast was clear for a while, but word soon got out and other dignitaries rolled in.

"At Mount A, anything is possible," Dykeman recalls with a laugh. "That was very much a Mount A moment."

Dykeman still is passionate about her work.

"Things are very much on the move right now. Technology (is changing) and the standards of practice are being revisited — it's a fascinating time," she says. "At the same time, and with the demographic, these pressing health care issues are only going to increase. It's a very rewarding area in which to practice, a real privilege… I don't think I'll be bored over the next 20 years. I am as excited today about these issues as I was hashing them through with Ross Stanway in the late 1980s."